Efrain Alvarez’s MLS career is only 61 minutes old but the Galaxy midfielder already has national team coaches in two countries salivating over his future.
The teenager from East Los Angeles, who came off the bench to spark a comeback win over the Chicago Fire in the team’s season opener, was unable to rescue the Galaxy on Saturday, getting robbed of a goal following another spectacular dribbling display in the final minutes of a 2-0 loss to FC Dallas.
He has yet to score in an MLS game, takes high school classes with Galaxy academy students after his morning training sessions with the first team and, at 16, would need a teammate to go with him to buy a ticket to an R-rated movie.
Speaking of teammates, Zlatan Ibrahimovic had already played in a World Cup before Alvarez was born.
This summer the U.S. and Mexico will be battling to get Alvarez and his game-changing talent on the field for a Gold Cup game, the international appearance tethering him at the senior level to one side or the other before he’s old enough to shave.
Herculez Gomez, a former U.S. national team player who spent much of his club career in Mexico, said the Mexican federation is all in on Alvarez. But the player’s loyalties are mixed.
“They’re putting a full-court press on this kid,” said Gomez, now an analyst for ESPN. “They expect to have him available for the Gold Cup. But this kid has Southern California ties. He very much embraces both communities, the Mexican community, the American community.
“I think it’s very much up in the air.”
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter suggested he would give Alvarez space to make his decision.
“We’ll be watching the whole thing. And when he’s doing what we expect him to do, there will be an opportunity for him with the U.S. national team,” he told reporters in Houston last week. “Regarding a potential choice for him, we want to create an environment the players want to be in. We want to create a playing style, a team spirit that players want to be a part of.
“If we do, we’re confident we can get players like that.”
Don’t believe the soft-peddle. Both the U.S. and Mexico have seen enough of Alvarez in youth tournaments and in the USL to know he is a potential star. He’s already played for both sides, entering the U.S. youth national team program when he was 12, then quitting two years later to join the Mexican program.
Guess who the director of Mexico’s youth national teams was then? Dennis te Kloese, now the Galaxy’s general manager.
Te Kloese was also working for the Mexican federation last year when Jonathan Gonzalez, another U.S.-born teenager who had played in the American youth system, suddenly announced he wanted to play for Mexico as a senior. But Te Kloese said he plans to sit out the drama that will soon surround Alvarez.
“I worked a long time in Mexico. At that point my role and my responsibility was to form the best Mexican national teams possible,” Te Kloese said. “And at some point I thought Efra was, or is, in his age group one of the best talents.
“My role at this point is to take care of all the best interests and responsibilities that I have toward this club. And Efra is a very good player for the club. What he does regarding his national team duties is his family and everybody’s decision on that end.”
That’s equally hard to believe. Te Kloese is only 44 and has a long career ahead of him but part of his legacy will undoubtedly be the success he had in Mexico, where he put together a U-23 team that won Olympic gold in 2012 and helped develop the young core of the current senior national team, one that includes Gonzalez, midfielder Diego Lainez, defender Edson Alvarez and forward Hirving Lozano, none of whom are older than 23.
The U.S. might be even deeper in young talent, boasting teenage forwards Timothy Weah and Josh Sargent, 20-year-old midfielders Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, and goalkeeper Zack Steffen, 23. Adding Alvarez to that mix would make a potent attack.
A bigger factor in Alvarez’s ultimate decision could be the status of former Galaxy II teammates Alex Mendez and Uly Llanez, who joined Alvarez in following coach Brian Kleiban from the Chivas USA academy to the Galaxy system in 2015.
Mendez and Llanez, close friends of Alvarez, starred for the U.S. U-20 team that won the CONCACAF championship last fall and are pushing for a call-up to the senior national team. Alvarez clearly would like to play with them but is that enough to tip him away from Mexico?
As for what Alvarez thinks, well for now we’ll just have to guess since the Galaxy are being cautious and limiting the teenager’s access to the media.
“He’s 16. He’s got a long future. But we need to work right now with him to keep his feet on the ground,” Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “He’s young and he showed us something but he has to show us a lot more. This is the challenge: keeping him improving, giving us something every game.”
Schelotto then waved off the building national team feud. The kid’s first-team career is 61 minutes old. There will be time to talk about the World Cup later.